In the back room of a Dorchester watering hole, cordoned off by a screen and a "room closed" sign, five candidates for state representative nervously explained their positions on same-sex marriage to a neighborhood group of gays and lesbians.
One candidate said he has no problem with gay marriage but believes the Supreme Judicial Court overstepped its powers in legalizing it. Another candidate said she would protect gays' and lesbians' right to marry, while a third said only that she "doesn't want to introduce prejudice into the state constitution." A fourth reluctantly supports gay marriage, while the fifth would support civil unions for gay couples but not marriage.
In the race for the seat of former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, the issue has become of central importance to the candidates. All five showed up at the DotOUT meeting at the Harp & Bard last week, where an endorsement and a pledge of campaign workers were up for grabs. In a field of five Democrats with strikingly similar positions on nearly every other subject, same-sex marriage has emerged as a distinguishing issue.
"It's huge," said candidate Eric Donovan, 34, a lawyer who argues that voters, not judges, should have decided whether gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts.
The race is also critical for groups supporting gay marriage that hope to defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would strip gays and lesbians of the right to marry but allow civil unions. The amendment was approved by the Legislature with 105 votes in the spring -- four more votes than it needed for passage -- but must clear the Legislature a second time in order to go before voters.
Gay marriage supporters, who want to kill the amendment, now have a chance to pick up three more seats in special elections scheduled April 12, including the seat held by Finneran, a strong gay-marriage opponent. The March 15 party primary will be crucial in the Democrat-dominated district.
"This seat is extremely important to us," said Marty
Despite the interest in gay marriage from activists, the candidates for Finneran's seat say they hope 12th Suffolk District constituents in Hyde Park, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Milton pay more attention to issues such as education and crime. But on those issues, there is little difference: All the candidates want to increase funding to public schools and police, they want to encourage home ownership through more affordable housing, and to expand access to healthcare and jobs.
It is their stances on gay marriage that set many of their platforms apart.
Emmanuel Bellegarde, a 28-year-old Mattapan resident and former legislative aide to Senator Jack Hart, said his Christian upbringing made it hard for him to support gay marriage, but he pledged to support the right if elected. "I still continue to struggle with it," Bellegarde said. "Marriage has always been one man, one woman. After talking with friends and family, it made me see that it won't directly affect my life. We should really fight for equal rights for everyone, even though we might not agree."
Donovan, a Dorchester resident who resigned his post as a State House counsel to run for Finneran's seat, said he doesn't care whether gays and lesbians marry, but he said the Supreme Judicial Court had no right to legalize the practice. "To my friends in the district, gays and lesbians, they're not going to be happy with me on that particular issue," he said. "I will tell you right now, I will be voting to put it on the ballot.
Linda Dorcena Forry, a 31-year-old Dorchester resident and assistant to Boston housing chief Charlotte Golar Ritchie, said she believes in the "core values of being a Democrat," and to her that means fighting for gays' and lesbians' right to marry. "I'm not for discrimination in the constitution," said Forry, who won the endorsement of DotOUT last week. "I believe in equality, I believe we should protect people's rights."
The only other unreserved supporter of gay marriage is Stacy Monahan, a 32-year-old Dorchester resident and aide to US Representative Stephen F. Lynch. Monahan said everyone should be allowed to marry. "It's a crucial issue," she said. "I really feel like people should have equal protection under the law and the right to marry and have a family with the person they love."
The fifth candidate, Kerby Roberson, 47, of Milton, is unequivocal in his opposition. "To me, the word 'marriage,' I don't equate it to civil rights," said Roberson, a lawyer in private practice in Hyde Park. "I can't really reconcile the right of a black person to exist, with the word 'marriage.' I feel that in order to really settle the issue, it is up to the people."
Many who attended praised the honesty of the candidates and the courage of those opposed to gay marriage. "I suppose I should give them a point for going in the lions' den," DotOUT member Michael Anthony said.
DotOUT cofounder Daniel Cushing, who said Forry won the endorsement with a 23-8 vote, said he wasn't surprised all the candidates showed up. "They know we have 120 members," he said. "And we all have friends."
Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org